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Sunday, 01 November 2009 18:10

Extension of West Kent Grammar Schools: Commentary On Paul Carter's Proposals: KOS November 2009

Please note that this page has been written to respond to controversy around Paul Carter's remarks of October 2009. It does not take on the fundamentally larger question of the rationale of the selective system in Kent, which is a political position not broadly challenged by Kent residents.

In a news report in the Independent newspaper, Paul Carter, Leader of Kent County Council, proposes an expansion of grammar school places in the West of the County, to be balanced by a reduction in places available in the East.

This proposal is designed to reduce the immense pressure on places in the West of the county and to avoid the prohibition in the statutory Code of Practice for School Admissions,  para 1.22. This forbids Local Authorities and the Schools Adjudicator from allowing grammar schools to expand, although they are otherwise encouraged to approve proposals to expand popular and successful schools. Whether Mr Carter's proposal is judged to be legal remains to be seen. From the recent Kent tests, there were 5137 successful candidates, with only 4458 Kent grammar school places available. However, whilst not all the 993 out of county successes will seek to take up places, there will once again be pressure in West and North West Kent.

According to the Independent, the proposal has caused anger amongst some teacher unions, although if Kent is to keep its selective system,  then some action needs to be taken to reduce the pressure in West Kent.

Some reasons why this pressure is increasing year on year (in no particular order):

1) This year 993 out of county applicants have passed the Kent test. Whilst this is a reduction of 105 on last year, it still represents a substantial pressure on the system. It is evident, according to both anecdotal evidence and my own experience, that some of these 993 families will now move house into West Kent to ensure a grammar school place and so will not show up in the statistics later in the year. Main schools under pressure: Skinners, Tonbridge Grammar School, Judd, Dartford Grammar School, Wilmington Grammar School for Boys.

2) The immense coaching culture that operates in West Kent (and to a far lesser extent across the rest of the county) evident for example on the 11 plus exams website. This has an incalculable effect in shifting the balance of passes westwards, to the detriment of candidates in the East of the County. Whilst we have a selective system, I have no simple solution to this problem, except to note that whilst state schools are forbidden to coach for the Kent test (even though a significant minority ignore this ruling), many private schools depend for their existence on coaching for the eleven plus. Perhaps it is time to level the playing field.

3) 'Super Selection'. Tonbridge Grammar School, The Skinners School and The Judd School award places to high scorers no matter where they live, attracting significant numbers across the county boundary, especially the first two of these. In North West Kent, the decision of Dartford Grammar School to give priority to high scorers after all those in Dartford Borough who have passed the Kent test (an unbalanced intake that will be interesting to manage) saw 55 places offered to boys in London Boroughs as far away as Lewisham, a trend that will increase this year with the pass mark being forced even higher as SE London parents realise how easy it is to travel by train to Dartford.

4) 'Credit Crunch'. It is increasingly evident that parents are looking at the good value offered by grammar schools for bright children as distinct from many Independent Schools. I believe that the proportion of applicants to grammar schools from private prep schools in West Kent is therefore increasing, children who would otherwise be destined for private secondary schools, some of whom are under real pressure.  Other private schools are solving their problems by taking greater numbers from other countries, especially the far east, or else offering larger bursaries or scholarships to retain pupils (there are some great bargains to be had - although not advertised).

The Greenwich Judgement

This was a High Court judgement which has been in force for some 20 years, that stated school catchment areas and oversubscription criteria could not follow political boundaries. This prohibition was removed by the recent Admission Code of Practice for Admissions (above) as confirmed by a judgement earlier this year by the Schools Adjudicator relating to Poole Grammar School. It has been underlined by another decision of his for Dartford Grammar School for Girls, that gives priority to Kent families.

Solutions:

1) The Paul Carter solution. The legality of this has yet to be established. Already two East Kent grammar schools, Chatham House and Clarendon House, have reduced their intake for September 2010 from 120 to 90 apiece as they have become federated. As this has already been agreed, I doubt they would be counted. It is a fallacy that there are lots of spare places in East Kent grammar schools, with the likes of Queen Elizabeth - Faversham, Dover Girls, Highworth - Ashford, Simon Langton Girls and Boys - Canterbury, all heavily oversubscribed. In my judgement, the only two schools where there is the possibility of removing a form of entry without creating further pressures are Folkestone School for Girls and The Harvey Grammar in Folkestone, although both of these are already absorbing some of the excess from the growing population of Ashford as its two grammar schools are both full.

However, if two forms of entry are created for West Kent schools, where should they be placed? It is clear that if they are created those schools should be committed to giving priority to Kent parents - it would be pointless to create extra places for out of county children! To my mind therefore, the two schools most in the frame for this would be The Judd School (currently 12% out of county) and Weald of Kent Grammar (already giving priority to local residents and well away from the county boundary).

2) An alternative solution would be to encourage the schools most affected to change their oversubscription criteria to give priority to Kent parents, solving the problem more simply, although this would also be subject to legal wrangling as out of county parents would no doubt protest.  The removal of the Greenwich Judgement makes this a practical possibility. The Skinners School, just three miles from the county boundary, argues that this solution would result in a house price hike around the school, but priority across Kent (or West Kent) would neutralise this possibility. Such a solution would also enable East Sussex residents, who have chosen to live in that county, to support their own local excellent schools.

Last March, there was enormous news interest, and rightly so, in the number of West Kent boys allocated grammar school places in Sittingbourne or Folkestone with girls going to Wilmington, Gravesend and Maidstone. Since then, the problem has largely faded away. Successful appeals (how on earth has Tunbridge Wells Boys Grammar, already packed to the rooftops and protesting strongly that it could not take any additional boys, coped with the 33 additional boys it was instructed to take on appeal), some children taking up places in private schools, others resigning themselves to difficult bus and train journeys to Wilmington  have ensured (it is believed) that somehow or other the problem has been solved for another year, until March 2010 arrives and we begin all over again.

Last modified on Sunday, 22 April 2012 16:25

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